I had never heard the term “adult children of alcoholics” until about two years ago.
I didn’t know it was a thing.
I didn’t know the way it scarred you.
I didn’t know the way growing up with an alcoholic stunted your emotional development.
I didn’t know that it meant a life of playing catch up, missing social cues, and trauma recovery.
But I know now. And it makes perfect sense.
This week I’m writing about what growing up in an alcoholic house does to children. I’m writing about what it looks like in those children who grew up to be adults. I’m writing about some unflattering characteristics that could be clouded in shame and embarrassment.
But I pray you find hope in this too.
With more knowledge comes better awareness, more tools, more acceptance about where you might be and how you can more forward.
No child chooses to grow up with an alcoholic parent. This isn’t something a child would ever pick. Most kids growing up in alcoholic homes don’t know their normal isn’t really normal. They won’t see that until they’re older, until they start to see how the non-alcoholic houses live.
Then they’ll have to grieve and heal.
If you’re raising kids in an alcoholic home, let this be a glimpse into their future. Maybe this can be a jumping off point to make some changes. Let this be your wake up call. The reality is your kids are learning or have already learned many of these characteristics. It’s not a death sentence, but you’re in control of how much more they carry into adulthood.
Please take that responsibility seriously. I live with a husband whose “healthier” parent did not do that. If you’ve been reading any of our story for any length of time, you know how destructive and hard it will be to handle this later.
It’s not too late for your kids.
If you’re an adult now, it’s not too late for you either. I pray you see that this week. No one is too far gone.
I’m using Adult Children of Alcoholics by Janet Geringer Woititz, Ed.D as an inspiration for these posts. I’m just skimming the surface of this topic. Her book and others, plus Al-Anon and therapy can all be used to heal. But if this topic is brand new to you, I’d highly recommend you start with her book. It’s an easy and accessible first step to a subject that can be–at times–really overwhelming.
And finally, before we get started: my hope, as always, rests in Jesus. He is the Ultimate Healer. While a lot of people use that term in a way that implies God can heal anything He wants (and I believe He can), I understand it normally means He’s given us tools, people, and communities to aid our healing. We are not helpless creatures with no where to turn. We have the Bible, wise counselors, the Holy Spirit, and medical professionals who have gifts and talents from God who can lead us through recovery. Prayer is powerful so don’t forget that either. All of God’s generous resources are at our disposal so don’t count any of them out. All of them together are, possibly, what God wants your miracle to be.
Let’s get started.
What does an adult child of an alcoholic look like? According to Geringer Woititz and others in her field, adult children of alcoholics:
-guess at what normal behavior is
-have difficulty following a project through from beginning to end
-lie when it would be just as easy to tell the truth
-judge themselves without mercy
-have difficulty having fun
-take themselves very seriously
-have difficulty with intimate relationships
-over-react to changes over which they have no control
-constantly seek approval and affirmation
-usually feel that they are different from other people
-are either super responsible or super irresponsible
-are extremely loyal, even in the face of evidence that the loyalty is undeserved
Here’s a funny and not funny story about the book I’m referencing. Chris asked me to order it for him at the beginning of his sobriety work.
He read half of it.
He was marking up parts he related to, questions other adult children of alcoholics were sharing, and then just stopped. He was reading a book explaining why he often can’t follow through with things and then quit it.
*insert a confusing laugh-cry combo here*
Self-awareness means you have to address the issue. It’s why so many of us don’t want to know more about ourselves, our wounds, our tendencies and scars. Because it would make us accountable for them.
Accountability is hard.
If you’re friends with, married to, or in a family with adult children of alcoholics, this information will be eye-opening and connect a lot of dots. But it’s not to be used as a weapon to hurt someone who is already hurting. We don’t learn and read and grow to hurt others. If that’s your motive, you can skip this series, please.
When I met my husband, I mistook his actions for confidence instead of low self-esteem. I saw his indifference as attractive instead of the reality that he didn’t know how to care for himself or others well. You don’t know how to do something you didn’t learn; you don’t know how to do something no one modeled for you.
Healthy child development includes parental warmth, clearly defined boundaries, and respectful treatment (p. xxiii). Alcoholic households don’t have those things. The alcoholic parent is too consumed with self and the other parent spends the majority of his/her time caring for the alcoholic. There is little left for the kids in the house. Healthy child development involves not giving children adult problems. Adult children of alcoholics (ACOAs) are given very adult problems very early in life. There are no carefree days. Innocence is lost early.
The loss of innocence changes everything.
Every single thing.
Children learn identity from the people around them. If the people around them are damaged, selfish, manipulative, addicted, and unreliable, they too will become these things.
If we tell our children to be kind yet we are never kind, they don’t learn kindness, they learn how to be mean. It’s the same way with an alcoholic parent. It doesn’t matter how much the alcoholic parent says don’t be like me or the other parent tries to overcompensate, it doesn’t get cancelled out. Children learn by modeling what they see. Children will model what they see no matter what words you use to tell them differently.
ACOAs grow up confused about love and identity. When we are young, we learn who we are by our parents and the house we grow up in. Eventually, we get to determine that on our own, but it starts in childhood with our families of origin. Children of alcoholics get warped messages about what love is, what relationships should look like, and what is acceptable within love and relationship. There’s a level of drama and chaos that comes with an alcoholic household that is hard to shake.
It feels normal and “safe” and reliable. That sets up future relationships to be dangerous.
ACOCs hear their parents lie all the time. They lie when they show up to family functions to cover for the alcoholic. They lie to bosses on the phone when someone can’t come to work. They lie to friends who try to come over. They lie to themselves and each other other. Lies take up a lot of space in an alcoholic home.
Communication is a big part of parenting, especially as kids get older. Talking through problems and worries, parents help kids practice thinking things through, anticipating consequences, and weighing risk. When a two year old heads toward a flight of stairs, a parent runs to grab him because his brain isn’t developed enough to understand cause and effect. Teenagers, hopefully, are starting to put cause and effect together. We don’t run to catch our kids every time they fall at this age, but we do talk about possible outcomes, or if things went south, what to learn from the mistake.
Children of alcoholics don’t get that. More than likely, the parent doesn’t have the maturity to have those conversations, but they also don’t have the time. They’re too busy putting out fires they keep lighting or living in the isolation of their addiction.
So kids grow up without the skills other kids are getting.
Strike one: growing up in a chaotic household.
Strike two: not having the skills and maturity other kids their age have.
Strike three comes in the form of a high likelihood of repeating the patterns they witnessed as a child, either turning into an alcoholic themselves, marrying an alcoholic, or–the grand slam for ACOAs–both.
*The information I’m sharing didn’t originate with me. I’m a constant consumer of information, never satisfied with one or two books on a subject. But a lot of the research I’m sharing comes from Adult Children of Alcoholics
*Today is the overview; I’ll share more tomorrow about how these characteristics have played out in our marriage, how we’re beginning to address them, and what Chris is doing to recover from a really ugly start.
*You don’t have to be married to an ACOA to benefit from this series. Once I started studying this, I realized a lot of my close friends were also adult children of alcoholics. Understanding their stories better makes me a more compassionate friend.
*Finally, Woititz points out in her introduction that many characteristics of ACOAs can be found in adults who grew up in similar dysfunctional households. Sin is sin and if you grew up around violence or untreated mental illness or another addiction, you might also see yourself in parts of this series.